People are getting smarter nowadays; they are letting lawyers, instead of their conscience, be their guide.
Will Rogers (1879-1935)
Earlier this month law firm Client Earth won its air pollution case against the UK Government in the High Court over illegal levels of air quality across the country.
Client Earth argued that policy makers had failed to take appropriate measures to comply with the law. (Update 2017 – Client Earth again took the Government to court and won – to force Defra to publish air quality plans before the general election in June. The plans, widely criticised as weak are now out for consultation).
Air pollution is causing a health crisis that, despite its scale, remains largely hidden and poorly understood. Air pollution can damage us throughout life from within the womb to older age, it contributes to chronic conditions including cancer, heart disease, asthma and dementia (NHS) . This year A Royal College of Physicians report suggested that nearly 40,000 people a year die prematurely due to air pollution. )
Air pollution is a common(s) issue
Air pollution is often seen as a ‘commons’ issue –belonging to or affecting the whole community. Tackling such problems can be challenging, as not only are there several sources of air pollution, but also a wide range of impacts felt by different societal actors. For a primer on the concept of commons and approaches to the challenges they pose, see Reinventing the Weal – Exploring the Commons Part 1 and Part 2.
But, back to the case in hand. Why should we bother with tackling air pollution? OK, so a few people are dying early but what about the economy (stupid) ? Oh – well it costs quite a lot too; it’s been estimated that air pollution costs the UK economy over £20 bn. annually. (Royal College of Physicians).
So why is it that a law firm has stepped in to achieve something that would appear to be in everyone’s best interest?
Ultimately the purpose of any government should be to ensure the health, well-being and prosperity of its citizens. That’s what we vote and pay them for. And the government is certainly paying for air pollution, through added costs to the NHS for treatment, through loss of economic productivity and reduced tax take.
Ultimately I suspect it’s because measures to reduce pollution require investment and some change, some disruption to ‘business as usual’ and that is seen as too difficult against a background of reduced public spending, and short-term policy horizons.
But like many systemic/sustainability issues this is a dysfunctional approach that does everyone harm. It’s time to remember that clean air is good for you, me and our children and that’s worth something.